Esplanade needs to build two mid-sized halls, says new chairman Lee Tzu Yang

New chairman Lee Tzu Yang says the arts venue needs to build two mid-sized theatres

With a new chairman at the helm of the Esplanade, the 13-year-old performing arts centre affectionately nicknamed The Durian may yet bear more fruit - two mid-sized theatres that were part of the original plans for the complex.

In an interview with Life!, his first since replacing chairman Theresa Foo, Mr Lee Tzu Yang, 60, said that the time may have come to build the two mid-sized theatres.

He said the centre sees itself as having an increasing role to play in supporting the development of home-grown artists and content.

One way the Esplanade, with a 2,000-seat theatre and a 1,600-seat concert hall, has been doing this is by developing, producing and presenting local theatre productions in its 220-seat theatre studio. But it is held back in its efforts to do more.

"One of the things that we lack currently as we try to work with more local artists and groups is the size of the venues with which they are most keen to work with," said Mr Lee.

"If you want to move from the studio to the theatre, it's maybe 10 times the size and there are very few local groups who can bridge that. They need help, they need something of an intermediate size, 500- to 900-seaters."

Medium-sized venues offer both the scale and intimacy for many theatre productions.

He added: "If we don't do it, there will be perhaps a gap in the ecosystem and less activity. And because the Esplanade actually had this in its original plans, it would seem to me logical that we continue our trajectory and complete this."

The development of the Esplanade was divided into two phases. Phase 1 comprises the current complex, which opened in 2002, while the second phase includes plans for two mid-sized theatres. There has been no word on when, if ever, Phase 2 will be carried out.

In 2012, however, a call for mid-sized theatres to be built at the Esplanade was raised in the report by the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, a high-level committee charting Singapore's cultural policy that was led by Mr Lee. He recognised that more mid-sized performance spaces have become available in recent times, including the 614-seat Victoria Theatre and 883-seat Victoria Concert Hall, which reopened last year after a four-year refurbishment.

"But we think we can do it well and we can do it to a quality that would also support the idea that we are a national icon and apex for excellence in the arts, for art forms that demand this size."

He added: "We hope to continue to discuss with the Government prospects for completing this venue and allowing us to do this next part of our role, which we see as perhaps even more important, in the next five to 10 years."

Until then, the Esplanade will continue to press on, refreshing parts of the existing building including the forecourt, and converting other spaces to be used for popular programmes such as those targeted at young children.

Mr Lee, a board member of the Esplanade since 2003, said "a major part" of its shows and productions will continue to be free. Currently, about 70 per cent of its performances are free or non-ticketed because of support from the Tote Board, Turf Club and other sponsors, as well as volunteers. The centre has welcomed 80 million visitors since its opening.

He acknowledged that its commitment to holding free performances and working with home-grown productions that have shorter runs and therefore lower revenues will put greater financial pressure on the arts centre, which last year faced a deficit for the first time and incurred an overall loss of $2.3 million.

But it "fully intends to balance the books" he said, and "build the reserves by working with sponsors who have been very generous, to try to get on an even keel again".

It might be easier for the centre to be in the black by letting out the venue to successful international productions, but Mr Lee believes that growing the home-grown arts community will pay off richly, beyond dollars and cents, in the long run.

He said: "When we work with local artists, we will speak with more authentic voices, voices that will resonate with a wider section of our community. And by giving them a voice, we will have a better sense of who we are and explore aspects of our cultural identity. Yes, we are interested in looking at the best from everywhere in the world, but perhaps this may never ring quite as true with ourselves."

lijie@sph.com.sg